Why the exception should not be the rule

Internment without consent should be applied to situations of absolute emergency; it should be the exception, not the rule

By Rafael Franzini, Representative of UNODC's Liaison and Partnership Office in Brazil , and Amerigo Incalcaterra, Regional Representative of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in South America

UNODC23 April 2013 - Drug use (especially crack) in the streets of Brazilian cities has sparked a great public debate about which is the most effective answer to this problem. Proposals of actions that focus on involuntary internment have multiplied in the streets, as well as in the legislative sphere.

However scientific evidence has pointed to the opposite direction: a health logic could be more effective in the reduction of problematic drug use.

According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and the World Health Organization (WHO), care and treatment must abide by the principles of health care ethics and respect individuals' autonomy and dignity. Moreover, international human rights treaties demand procedural guaranties in order for anyone to be detained and deprived of their liberty.

Recently, the Public Ministry of Rio de Janeiro, the Public Defender of São Paulo and two United Nations missions have expressed great concern over the violent, degrading and inhuman way in which drug users have been taken away from Brazilian streets in the name of a health approach.

The growing global trend of proposals for treatment without consent prompted a UN position in 2012 against detention centers/compulsory treatment, highlighting that the arbitrary deprivation of liberty is a violation of international human rights regulations.

Moreover, an editorial published in 2012 by Addiction magazine, one of the world's most respected in this field, said that involuntary internment is no longer used in developed countries because it is ineffective in treating drug dependency and favor the violation of users' human rights.

Internment without consent should be applied to situations of absolute emergency and for the purpose of protection, when there is a risk to the individual's safety and/or to others, and it should also be proportional. In other words, the internment should be the exception, not the rule.

Even in these cases, it is essential to observe ethical and legal principles to prevent the violation of rights guaranteed by international conventions. Procedures must be transparent and legally established to avoid a wide and arbitrary application of this resource.

To do so, people who are subjected to involuntary internment must have the right to refer to a tribunal so that a decision can be quickly made about the legality of the deprivation of liberty. Cases authorized by a court must be periodically revised to determine the need of continuing the internment.

It is a fact that problematic drug use is linked to social conditions of vulnerability and risk, but there is little reliable research and information about the number of users who would actually need internment.

International experience shows that rehabilitation and reintegration of drug users is much more about interventions that respect users' human rights and are suitable to their social and health needs, rather than their segregation in treatment centers.

* This article was published by Brazilian newspaper Folha de São Paulo on 17 April 2013.

Related information:

Treating drug dependence: from coercion to cohesion (article by Gilberto Gerra, Chief of UNODC's Drug Prevention and Health Branch)

From cohercion to cohesion - Treating drug dependence through health care, not punishment (UNODC discussion paper, in English, Spanish and Portuguese)

Joint Statement of UN agencies - Compulsory drug detention and rehabilitation centres

Arrests and compulsory detentions of drug users in Brazil concern UN experts

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